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Maui's Bumpy Road to Renewable Energy

The need and the will are there. So what's the holdup?

(page 2 of 3)


To increase its wind portfolio, MECO has partnered with Shell WindEnergy and Ulupalakua Ranch to install 14 wind turbines in Upcountry Maui. At the remote location, the wind whips constantly at 40 to 50 mph. “It’s the only place I know where cinder flies,” says Sumner Erdman, president of Ulupalakua Ranch. Usually, wind is stronger at higher elevations, but, on this sliver of land, the lower the elevation, the stronger the wind.

Having another wind farm at this site diversifies the wind resource since it’s another part of the island. MECO has been monitoring the site for years. “It’s noticeable that when the West Maui winds are down, the north and southeast winds are actually blowing, so we feel that makes a big difference in our overall operation,” says Ed Reinhardt, president of MECO.

Unlike the firm power agreement MECO has with HC&S, wind and solar technology are non-firm power sources, meaning there is no energy produced if there is no wind or if clouds are overhead. Nonetheless, MECO still needs to sell energy to its customers and is looking at better storage or electronic shock absorbers to decrease system instability. A recent U.S. Department of Energy agreement at Kaheawa seeks to address those instability issues, as well as modernize the grid.

Also in the works is an ocean wave energy project, the first of its kind in Hawaii. Located on the North Shore of Maui near the Jaws surf break, a floating platform will use displaced air created by ocean swells to push a turbine inside the platform. A project by Australia-based Oceanlinx, it is slated to begin operations by 2009.

On a consumer level, solar photovoltaic installations participate in MECO’s net energy metering program. Unused power generated by the consumer can be sold to MECO and credited toward the consumer’s account. Such installations cannot generate more than 1 percent of the utility’s peak demand.

Then there’s biofuels.

Robert King of Pacific Biodiesel

Robert King, president of Pacific Biodiesel, stands by the company’s retail pump in Kahului, where biodiesel sold for $3.79 in early June. Retail petroleum diesel sold at or near $5 a gallon.

 

Two Roads

In 2007, MECO and BlueEarth Biofuels announced a plan to build a biodiesel plant on MECO land that will produce 40 million gallons of biodiesel a year. When completed in 2011, it will be one of the largest biodiesel plants in the nation. It will not be Maui’s only biodiesel facility, nor its first. Since 1996, Pacific Biodiesel has produced 750,000 gallons of biodiesel a year. It had the first retail biodiesel pump in the United States, and its creators are seen as pioneers in the industry.

The two companies are essentially creating the same product, but the means by which they reach that end are entirely different. Therein lies a debate.

The BlueEarth Biofuels project will supply enough biodiesel to fuel MECO’s diesel generators. The first phase will produce 40 million gallons a year. To make the fuel, the company is looking at a number of feedstocks including jatropha, kukui nut, palm oil and possibly algae oil. BlueEarth’s goal is to use 100 percent locally produced crops as feedstock. However, since there is no biofuel plant, Hawaii farmers have not produced biofuel crops. To get started, BlueEarth will need to import palm oil.

On the other hand, Pacific Biodiesel uses a community-based approach, utilizing what’s available to produce biofuels. Its Maui facility recovers almost all the used restaurant cooking oil on Maui to use as its feedstock, and supplements it with beef tallow.

To date, Pacific Biodiesel has nine plants across the nation and one in Japan. Each processing plant uses feedstock sources available in the area. For example, Oregon uses canola oil, Texas uses cottonseed oil and Virginia uses soy bean oil.

BlueEarth and MECO are confident palm oil is only an interim feedstock that will be obtained responsibly. In August 2007, HECO and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released an environmental policy for HECO’s procurement of biodiesel from palm oil and locally grown feedstocks. HECO and its subsidiaries MECO and Hawaiian Electric Light Co. agree to first use local crops if available, but can purchase palm oil from suppliers if they meet the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Principles & Criteria, which includes a set of 41 criteria.

Palm oil is favored for its yield and low-cost production while also being an efficient feedstock. But, as the environmental policy states, “Palm oil cultivation has also been responsible for widespread clearing of primary tropical forests, draining of peat soils, catastrophic fires in Southeast Asia and a number of other negative social and environmental impacts.” RSPO has begun a voluntary certification process for interested palm oil suppliers. No other vegetable oil has a similar certification process.

“I think the major pushback is coming from folks who really don’t understand our palm oil sourcing program,” says Landis Maez, president, BlueEarth Biofuels. “We’re being very methodical and systematic about how we procure this interim feedstock and we’re going to great lengths to make sure it fits our 41 criteria set up by the NRDC to make sure we don’t do anything incorrect.”

MECO has approached Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, to talk about the feasibility of growing enough biofuel feedstock in the Islands. “It is an opportunity and should be a component of agriculture,” he says. Watanabe believes there is plenty of agricultural land available, but the infrastructure to grow and process these crops needs to be worked out. Biofuels won’t be the only thing growing on agricultural land, but it will be a part of it, he says. Also, operations must be profitable for all parties. BlueEarth’s model will stimulate growth for farmers because it will give them more options to grow crops.

Watanabe adds that a cooperative, centralized processing facility will need to be created. “That’s a key component. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t think it’ll work with the small farmers.” Watanabe knows there’s still research to be done, but the process needs to get started somewhere. “The longer people fight it, I look at is as artificial roadblocks. The longer you’re going to delay, the longer it’s going to take to get there.”

Kelly King, vice president of Pacific Biodiesel, believes there are too many questions with BlueEarth’s large-scale project. “The amount of fuel they’re talking about processing, we don’t have that much land,” she says. “It will always be dependent on imports at that level. That’s why, with our model, we’re doing it smaller and we’re building as we see the potential as the crops actually develop here. … We certainly wouldn’t build something that’s 10 or 20 or 50 million gallons a year until we knew that amount of agricultural land was available and there was a crop that could do that. That’s the first thing in sustainability. You want to make sure you can do it locally.”

Even if palm oil were an interim crop, King believes it wouldn’t be worth it. “There’s no amount of market justification that would make it OK to do that, even for a couple of years. Everybody who feeds into that and becomes part of the global demand on palm oil is still contributing to the poaching. … As soon as it leaves the shores and gets shipped across the world to Hawaii, that’s not a good thing and that’s not sustainable for us,” King says. “It’s not a resource we can rely on.”

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